Are MOOCs deepening divisions in higher education?

Technology is often described in the literature as an enabler, a facilitator, a supporter, as an enhancer and as empowering, but for millions around the world, this is not always the case.

Massive open online courses or MOOCs have experienced remarkable growth and momentum since their launch and are seen by many as being at the forefront of a 21st century tech revolution in learning. MOOCs have undoubtedly helped to legitimise the value of online learning and have expanded access to content and knowledge to thousands of people around the world who otherwise would not have had access to such material.

However, they pose significant challenges to participants from developing countries and might in fact further aggravate existing educational divides as the education world might increasingly be separated into tiers: those who have access to quality education and MOOCs and those who do not or cannot have access.

Access is widened but barriers still exist

Recent literature on MOOCs suggests that many of the lessons taught by decades of e-learning experimentation have not been learned and reflected upon, and that learning in an online or blended context is not simply ‘repackaging’ a course or posting course notes online with some video-captured content.

Additionally, providing online access to high-level MOOCs content without contextualisation, continuous academic support, diagnostic assessment, feedback and peer engagement in academically disadvantaged contexts and to students from disadvantaged contexts in developing countries, is not sufficient or effective.

The barriers to MOOC access and use by participants from developing countries are twofold:
  • • Infrastructural issues are the most significant as they limit the access and effectiveness of MOOCs in developing countries. A World Bank 2016 report indicated that four billion people did “not have any internet access, nearly two billion do not use a mobile phone and almost half a billion live outside areas with a mobile signal”.

    MOOCs are accessible only to those with high-speed internet or wi-fi (for downloading material and viewing videos), either on their desktop or mobile devices, which raises the issue of cost for many in developing countries.

  • • Other barriers of great complexity such as cultural, design, pedagogical and political issues are also impacting on the implementation and use of MOOCs in developing countries.

    There are MOOCs in French, Arabic, Malay, Chinese and Korean. However, cultural barriers and the high level of the content, mostly taught in English in the most prominent MOOC platforms, is problematic for students with low levels of academic preparation and whose primary home or school language is not English.

    This also limits participants’ ability to contribute to often mandatory online written and oral discussions with peers, particularly when they need to navigate “never-ending oceans of information”.
It can thus be suggested that the MOOC model, in its current shape, form and design, is often not adequate for developing countries.

Design, human mediation and scaffolding are critical

The findings of numerous published studies have indicated that the scarcity of peer-to-peer and peer-to-instructor interactions in the MOOC format, as it is currently proposed, makes it insufficient and inadequate for learners from underprivileged backgrounds who lack basic skills.

Academics from developing countries repeatedly highlight the need for:
  • • More ‘scaffolding’ opportunities designed to move students progressively towards stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process;
  • • A wider adoption of adaptive learning technologies;
  • • Continuous constructive feedback;
  • • Continuous diagnostic approaches at key strategic points to track students’ performance; and
  • • More contextualisation that would help their diverse learners, often from rural or from challenging educational backgrounds, achieve better learning outcomes.

Technology has indeed a pivotal role but only if purposely adapted and contextualised to participants’ needs.

Knowledge and information population segmentation

Because technology and the emergence of always new technologies is often biased in favour of educated technology-savvy people, poverty and inequalities might be aggravated as those without (or with limited) access to it or without the skills to use technology effectively are left out.

MOOCs therefore still help perpetuate and amplify educational divides as the best students get even better after taking MOOCs while many in developing countries seem to be still denied these opportunities. They remain excluded and distanced as they face increased hurdles to catch up with the knowledge economy.

Focus on improving MOOC learning designs

There is an urgent need to shift the focus from the MOOC as a tool, from MOOCs as an institutional recruitment and branding strategy, from MOOCs as a potential generator of revenue, to an increased reflection on learning, engagement, diagnosis and assessment design in the MOOC format.

Who better knows the local issues than those having to deal with them on a daily basis? Some of the issues in developing countries also affect some disadvantaged communities in developed countries: there are, for instance, striking similarities between the educational challenges faced by rural and aboriginal communities in Australia and remote township communities in South Africa or India.

More collaboration and exchange of expertise between academics and MOOC designers in developing and developed countries is essential to jointly design mutually beneficial (and cost-saving) MOOCs adapted to the needs, context and level of the participants in developing countries, taking into consideration the often complex local academic, political, economic and infrastructural circumstances.

David Santandreu Calonge is currently Manager, Academic Development at the University of Adelaide (Australia) and visiting professor at Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea, where he teaches branding and design-thinking. He was director of the Da Tong project (interdisciplinary research and projects) at Hong Kong Baptist University, senior coordinator of learning and teaching at RMIT University, Australia, and associate director in the Office of Education Development and Gateway Education at City University of Hong Kong.